Jon Margolis is a political columnist for VTDigger.
From Washington comes word that President-elect Joe Biden will start filling senior White House positions soon, with an eye toward completing his cabinet not long after Thanksgiving.
Does that mean it’s time for Vermonters to wonder whether Sen. Bernie Sanders is going to be secretary of labor, and if so who might Gov. Phil Scott appoint to fill Sanders seat in the Senate?
Not primarily because the Republicans who are likely to keep control of the Senate might find the appointment of a self-described socialist too provocative for their tastes.
Not even primarily because Sanders does not seem to be the first choice of the labor movement. Its leaders no doubt appreciate his pro-union record and rhetoric. But it was notable that when signs of Sanders interest in the job first surfaced in an Oct. 22 article in Politico, there was a near-total absence of enthusiasm expressed by top officials of the big unions.
No surprise. They weren’t his biggest fans. As Sanders sought the presidential nomination, the big labor federation – the 12.5-million AFL-CIO – and such powerful unions as the United Auto Workers and AFSCME stayed neutral until Biden had effectively won the nomination, then endorsed him. It was clear that Biden had been their first choice all along.
Those union leaders also no doubt have their own preferences for the labor secretary spot, men and women as knowledgeable as Sanders about labor relations, just as pro-union, less objectionable to some unions and many business leaders.
Besides, while Biden is no doubt grateful for how energetically Sanders supported him, the president-elect is a politically astute fellow who understands that he got nominated because he is not Bernie Sanders. The Democratic Party did not nominate Joe Biden as much as it nominated the alternative to Sanders. Joe Biden won the nomination because he was the last “Not Bernie” standing.
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Go back – if it is possible to recall the pre-pandemic era – to last February, when it seemed very likely that Sanders would win the nomination. He had (sort of) won the Iowa precinct caucuses on Feb. 3, won the New Hampshire Primary eight days later, and the Nevada caucuses Feb. 22. He had more money in his campaign treasury and more money coming in than any other candidate. He had an army of enthusiastic, devoted volunteers.
Biden had none of that. He finished fourth in Iowa and fifth in New Hampshire. His campaign was all but broke. As to devoted volunteers, there never was an emotionally driven, passionate Biden constituency. He has admirers. People who have known him for years (including some Republican senators) respect him both as a person and as a public official. But he never aroused the kind of fervent support that gathered around politicians such as Donald Trump, Barack Obama, Bill Clinton or Ronald Reagan.
Still, on the last day of February, he won the South Carolina primary by more than 2-to-1 over Sanders. He won it because most Democratic primary voters there were African Americans who liked Biden because he’d been Obama’s vice president and had the support of Rep. James Clyburn, an influential South Carolina Democrat.
Oh, and because Biden is a Democrat (as Sanders is not) and many African Americans, especially in the South, depend on the Democratic party as an institution.
By that one victory, Biden emerged as the alternative to Sanders. He became the “Not Bernie.” The other candidates recognized that and dropped out one by one over the next several days. The Democratic primary voters recognized it, too, and flocked to Biden who started to win primary after primary, some of them by big margins: Alabama, Arkansas, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Texas.
Sanders did win California and Colorado on May 3. But after that he could only manage victories in Utah, North Dakota, (caucuses), and of course Vermont.
But Vermont didn’t really matter.
These primary defeats did not constitute a personal rejection of Sanders. Democratic voters did not and do not dislike him. They just disagree with him and many of his closest allies, less over what they want to do than over the way they want to do it.
Polling shows that most Democratic primary voters (and – for the most part – most Americans) want everyone to have affordable health care, but not necessarily by having the government pay for it all or by abolishing private insurance; want to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but not to abandon hamburgers or airplane trips; want to end mistreatment of asylum seekers at the border, but also want a secure border; want more racial equality, but also effective law enforcement.
By most of the evidence at hand, a majority of Democrats – and a plurality of everyone – favors incremental change in a generally liberal direction: a higher minimum wage, stronger environmental laws, humane treatment of asylum seekers, more civility at home and more cordial relations with the rest of the world.
What they do not appear to want is the kind of “systemic change” often advocated by the self-styled progressives in the Democratic Party. Voters want improvements within the existing social, political and economic systems. They are wary of dismantling those systems.
Biden knows all that. He does have to deal with and to some extent to accommodate his party’s progressive wing, including Bernie Sanders. That will include appointing some of them to important government posts. But he also knows that he won the nomination and the presidency because he is not one of them.
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